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Experts Say Yanukovych Instituting 'Neo-Soviet' Rule in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
He's destroyed his country's democratic institutions and reduced quality of life for most of his compatriots. That's the verdict against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych by many of the country's political experts one year into his presidency.

Not that major change in Ukraine was completely unexpected. When Yanukovych took power a year ago to the day after an election that repudiated five years of rule by the Orange Revolution's leaders, he said they'd left his country is a state of "ruin." He promised what he called a "course of deep reform and systematic modernization in every area of public life" that he said would "carry out a new wave of much-needed socioeconomic transformation."

At the top of his list was fighting corruption and reforming the state bureaucracy. But one year on, political experts say his policies have been either incomplete or regressive, aimed at canceling the Orange Revolution's democratic gains.

A survey of expert opinions about Yanukovych's first year in office by Kyiv's Democratic Initiatives Foundation found most of those polled say his main accomplishment is to have concentrated power in his own hands, says its director, sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina. "Yanukovych built a full vertical power structure with himself at the top," she says, "holding all levers of power, including ones that are formally independent."

Selective Justice

Bekeshkina said Yanukovych has undermined parliament -- where his Party of Regions holds a majority -- by turning it into a "vehicle for the presidential administration's bills." She said he's also used law enforcement to carry out "selective justice" against his rivals.

Prosecutors have targeted opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies in what the government says is part of a campaign against corruption.

Tymoshenko -- a former prime minister who narrowly lost the election to Yanukovych last year -- is under investigation on charges of misuse of funds. She's been barred from leaving Kyiv. Her ally, former Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko, is in jail on charges that his driver embezzled $45,000. Both deny the allegations, and Tymoshenko says Yanukovych is really using the drive as an excuse to jail her supporters.

Speaking last month after New York-based Freedom House downgraded its rating of Ukraine from "free" to "partly free," Tymoshenko said Ukraine had regressed a decade. "That's the result of the new president's first year in office," she said. "All those who hoped for freedom, justice, and rule of law have nothing to hope for anymore. Now that's recognized not just by the Ukrainian opposition, but by the whole world."

Regressive Policies

Besides marginalizing the opposition, human rights activists say the government has moved to censor the media. The European Union and other European organizations have also criticized the government over journalists' complaints about censorship and physical attacks.

Political expert Vadim Karasyov calls Yanukovych's rule "neo-Soviet" for undercutting pluralistic politics. "The president's power is based on personal factors, not institutions," he says. "The political system has been transformed into Yanukovych's personal regime." As for their effectiveness, Karasyov says that Yanukovych's policies have been "either half-baked, retrograde, or simply unfulfilled."

Among his policies, experts say his legal overhaul has made the judicial system dependent on the president by giving him the power to hire and fire judges. And although the government has reduced the number of bureaucrats, Karasyov says their fewer numbers haven't reduced corruption, lessened red tape, or improved the climate for business.

In economic reform, Bekeshkina says the government has reduced its budget deficit mainly by slashing pensions and social welfare. "Reform has been paid for by the population's falling standard of living," she says.

Instead of creating greater transparency, Bekeshkina says, Yanukovych's tax reform has pushed small and medium-sized businesses -- seen as the opposition's backbone of support -- further into the gray market.

She says those developments have changed, not lessened, what's seen as the country's worst problem: corruption. "If it was chaotic and unsystematic before," Bekeshkina says, "now it's becoming part of the power vertical system. It's allowed only for those in power and no one else."

Russia Ties

The main factor holding Yanukovych back from instituting a fully "Russian model" of authoritarianism, Karasyov says, is the presence of his arch-rival Tymoshenko. The embattled opposition leader was an icon of the Orange Revolution in 2004, when street protests helped overturn Yanukovych's victory in a rigged presidential election.

Tymoshenko has been especially vocal about Yanukovych's decision to end Ukraine's drive to join the European Union and NATO in favor of re-establishing close relations with Moscow.

Yanukovych extended Russia's lease for a former Soviet naval base at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. In return, Moscow gave Ukraine a discount on the amount it pays for Russian natural gas. The deal helped roll back the previous administration's policy of minimizing the influence of Moscow.

Such moves have been popular in Ukraine's largely Russian-speaking east, which overwhelmingly backs Yanukovych, but have alienated people in western Ukraine, the opposition's main base of support in the deeply divided country.

Yanukovych's policies have also strained relations with the West. The European Union last month blocked millions of dollars in aid to protest changes to regulations on public tenders it said would make them less transparent.

But despite Ukraine's clear reorientation away from the West, Karasyov criticizes Yanukovych for having "no real strategy" in foreign policy. "It's just tactical zigzags," he says.

Downplaying Ukrainian Identity

Other domestic policies, such as reversing decisions to honor Ukrainian nationalists who resisted Soviet authorities, have angered many in western Ukraine. New history textbooks have also downplayed the anticommunist resistance, measures that Bekeshkina says have impeded the development of Ukrainian national identity.

"Ukraine is a very young country, it will be only 20 this year, and needs to develop its language and own view of history," she says. "But now that's being cut back because of many scandals, including the shutting of Ukrainian schools."

One year on, has Yanukovych managed to roll back the gains of the Orange Revolution? Not yet, says Karasyov but adds that this year will be pivotal. "It will show whether Yanukovych will be able to turn Ukraine around completely by driving Tymoshenko out of politics, scattering the opposition, and taking the political system under his control," he says, "or whether Ukraine's democratic development can't be turned around."

Karasyov says Yanukovych has so far been unable to crush Tymoshenko because he governs not in his own interest, but in the interest of a handful of powerful billionaires who financed his campaign.

However the political conflict plays out, Bekeshkina says it's unclear how the country will emerge. "For now," she says, "we're walking away from European values."

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